The exemplary 1988 Nonesuch release of Nixon in China, with Edo de Waart leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's, with members of the original cast, is iconic for fans of the opera, but a new recording is likely to offer a fresh take on the piece. Naxos' version, with Marin Alsop conducting a live performance with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, is a welcome addition to the catalog. On Nonesuch, Carolann Page did a good job suggesting Pat Nixon's fragility, but she was the cast's weakest link. Her vocal limitations were painfully obvious, and the listener was left with the feeling, in moments like Pat's great aria, "This is prophetic," that there was much more to the music than what she was able to convey. Here, Maria Kanyova is superbly secure as Pat, singing with a rounded, glowing tone. Trudy Ellen Craney as Madame Mao was also problematic, and while Tracy Dahl doesn't sound as strained in the stratospheric role, her voice is small, and this is a part that cries out for a big, thrilling coloratura soprano. Robert Orth's Nixon here isn't always as vocally smooth as James Maddalena's, but he brings to the role an idiosyncratic vehemence and social awkwardness that feel more urgently and authentically Nixonian; this performance makes it sound like Richard Nixon is the role he was born to play. Orth and Kanyova offer the strongest reasons to check out this new recording. Marc Heller's Mao Tse-tung is vocally more solid, heroic, and altogether more attractive than John Duykers', but less quirky and dramatically engaging. Sanford Sylvan's warm and radiant Chou En-lai was a highlight of the original version; his first-act aria, "Ladies and gentlemen, Comrades and friends," was transcendently serene, and "I am old and cannot sleep," brought the opera to a luminous, hauntingly autumnal close. Chen-Ye Yuan manages Chou's music, but his voice is somewhat rough and his interpretation undistinguished. Thomas Hammons reprises his role as Henry Kissinger, and his characterization is significantly more vivid and sharply etched here.
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra's tone is leaner than that of Orchestra of St. Luke's, and lacks their warmth and rounded blend. The second scene of the second act, a performance of a revolutionary ballet in which Kissinger is an actor, is so peculiar that it's hard to imagine it making much sense even in the very best of circumstances. De Waart at least keeps thing moving along at an energetic clip, so that you aren't left with time to try to puzzle out what is going on, but Alsop's handling is not only perplexing, it's inert, and certainly the low point of the new recording. Alsop otherwise keeps up the momentum the score requires, and the third act is lovely, lyrical, and lovingly shaped. In the first two acts, though, the transitions between sections, which are genuinely tricky to pull off, frequently sound awkward and abrupt, where de Waart was able to create a seamless and inexorable flow.
The sound of Naxos' live recording doesn't come close to the sumptuousness of Nonesuch's version. It's shallower, overall, and the orchestra sounds less integrated. The voices lack the consistent ringing resonance that made the Nonesuch release outstanding. The live audience, though, adds something; its laughter (particularly in Pat's tour of the Chinese countryside) is a reminder that the opera is, in fact, a comedy and has moments that are very funny. While it is not likely to displace the first recording in the hearts and ears of Nixon fans, Naxos' version offers some very fine performances and is one that true devotees of the opera are likely to want to hear.